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Why can't we say it's about race?

I was standing with a public housing resident last week after a meeting, talking about what might happened to her housing development after it's torn down and redeveloped. When we came on the subject of a "mixed-income" community, she seemed annoyed.

 "Why is it that we always gotta say 'mixed-income'? Why can't we call it what we mean?" she asked. "It ain't about income. It's about the color of skin and learning to get along."

Then I heard Natalie Moore's piece on WBEZ about tension between residents at a mixed-income community, Westhaven Park Tower.

In the piece, condo and home owners talk about how they don't like how the public housing residents at Westhaven behave - making too much noise, having too many visitors or hanging out in common areas. And on the other side, how public housing residents feel judged and blamed by the owners. 

And about halfway through, one homeowner says even though he's white and all the public housing residents are black, the conflicts aren't about race.

He says, "I don't really look at other people's class or their racial background. I expect everybody to live in the building like I live in the building."

There's a lot about this piece that struck me, but this quote really got to me. It's not even the "I expect everybody to live in the building like I live in the building," although I think that's an unrealistic expectation and a culturally superior one at that.

It was how we dismiss race as a factor.

Whenever I think about race and racism, I always remember the image of smog that Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about in  "Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?":

Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society. Cultural racism - the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and assumed inferiority of people of color - is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in. None of us would introduce ourselves as "smog breathers" (and most of us don't want to be described as prejudiced) but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air?

My point isn't that anyone at Westhaven is racist or classist. I think the tensions at Westhaven have to do with overlapping layers of race, class, history and culture and how those things affect our social norms.

But it bothers me that we have to begin all our conversations around the subject with a disclaimer: it's not about race. What if it was about race? Would that be too scary to talk about?

I guess it's just a defense mechanism. But, like all defense mechanisms, it keeps us from the heart of the matter - that race is still an issue, and because of our history, it's painfully intertwined with economics and culture in a way that's almost impossible to separate. And if we do want to root it out, it means being incredibly honest about who we are. We're smog breathers, okay?

Talking about race is like having a root canal. No one wants to do it, but if you want to get rid of that ugly decaying lump in your mouth, it's gotta be done. 

What do you think? Is it about race? And does saying "it's not about race" keep us from really talking?

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11 Comments

frankalready said:

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Nice analysis.

I think its important to think about how condo owners and housing residents also have different amounts of power to control this situation. Owners probably have a disproportionately greater amount of power to change policy and general conditions in the building than public housing residents who have to deal with CHA bureaucracy to get anything done, and are also subject to a sort of control over their lives by the CHA that owners don't have to worry about. People's race, class, gender, and so many other factors play into how they can deal with these situations.

I guess my point is that dialogue is very important, having honest conversation about how race, class, and cultural differences shape our interactions is essential, but dialogue isn't enough. It has to be accompanied by a recognition of how power comes into the equation too, and that should include conversations about racial, economic and housing justice.

Teresa Puente said:

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It's about race and class too. That guy's comment that he wants others to live like him is elitist. That's like people complaining that their Mexican neighbors have too many people living in their house or play the music too loud. Why should others have to conform to his way of thinking?

socialtraining said:

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Is it prejudice or race? I believe that there should not be any segregation of races in communities in chicago. I am prejudice against behavior that lacks consideration for others. This behavior is exhibited more in poor economic communites than in high class areas. When I tell someone of another race that their music is too loud and they in turn call me racist I find that to be a scapegoat term used to justify rude behavior.

Mandy Burrell said:

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Living in a city and enjoying all of the great stuff that comes as a result of density also means learning to accept that your life sometimes will bump up against others -- in more ways than one. Compromise.

Lynn said:

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Brava! Keep it coming.

Ryan Flynn said:

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I live in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. I moved in almost four years ago with no misconceptions about where I was planting myself. From my perspective our community is going very well and has relatively small problems compared to most neighborhoods in the city, and I love where I live.

I do recognize that some people are still a bit wary of each other, as the two cultures do have different social habits, but I don't think most people in these mixed income neighborhoods have unreasonable expectations of how their new neighbors should act. They just want respect and to feel safe and comfortable.

An asshole is an asshole, no matter what race they are. If I am littering and ruining my property, screaming obscenities in public, throwing huge parties and letting my children run around unsupervised, you are not going to want to live next to me. I think that is what it boils down to. I don't believe that race is an excuse to be destructive, and I don't believe race should be something people should use against each other. Disrespect and irresponsibility should not be a part of anyone's culture.

The 'market rate' neighbors with their 'shut in' habits need to make an effort to change as well, realizing that being social and going outside of their comfort zone will help them feel more invested in the community. Just knowing someone's name immediately makes it harder to dismiss them. I think both sides can learn to open up to each other and adapt, and that is the point of this big 'experiment'. To find the good parts in each other and create strong new communities. That will create the dual incentives of making the neighborhoods great places to live, and raising property values.

frankalready said:

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Ryan,

This is the point where dialogue breaks down though. The fact that you, and other property owners, have an interest in raising property values is going to have an negative impact on low-income folks in the community. Those rising property values and the increasing 'coolness' or 'safety' or whatever other word we want to use that indicates that the neighborhood is now a desirable place for middle and upper class mostly white folks to live, is going to end up displacing low-income folks, mostly people of color through rising rents, increasing property taxes, and likely increasing police harassment.

These issues can't be addressed by dialogue or understanding or tolerance. There is a question of justice here, and a question of who Cabrini belongs too. That's not to say that communities can't exist side by side, but without serious efforts to combat displacement and measures ensuring that all members of a community, not just those with money and influence, have a voice in what happens in the neighborhood, dialogue is going to be hollow.

This is, I think, where ideas about diversity, understanding, and tolerance fall flat. We have to also be talking about the real ways that power affects people, and as middle class white folks moving into gentrifying neighborhoods, how our race, class, and gender privilege structure our interactions with the community.

Ryan Flynn said:

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The idealized vision of how this all should work is that the low income black community would seek out and utilize the power and opportunities that have been put in place for them at the same levels that the middle income owners do. From my point of view, they generally don't. How do you propose to force people to take control of their own lives? There are a lot of efforts being made to give people facing displacement opportunities to control their destiny, and the major rehabilitation of many old units will continue to house long time residents allowing them to stay in the neighborhood. There are rules in place guranteeing the number of low and middle income units that will continue to exist in the future. The low income families can have all the power they want, no one is holding them down here, if they choose not to do anything with it, what then?

Cabrini belongs to the city. The projects were built for temporary assistance, not for generations of families to live in forever. The expectation that someone is forever entitled to live anywhere in the city for next to nothing, is not helping anyone. The properties do not get taken care of properly, and things spiral back to unlivable situations. It seems pretty obvious that grouping low income residents in massive housing, segregated from the rest of the city, was a monumental failure. (actually the Cabrini-Green row houses started out mixed-race as well, but that is a whole different discussion)

The difference with these mixed income communities, is that with the inclusion of these families (of ALL races I might add) that are paying full price to live in these neighborhoods, there is another force there to help bring improvements to the area that have been missing for 30 years. These improvements benefit everyone living there. I don't think you will find anyone looking to buy property within ten miles of the city not concerned with property value. It is what brings growth and vitality to the city. I know there are problems, and I'm sure many unfair circumstances have happened because of this process. But to let the public housing in Chicago go on existing as it was would be the worst idea of them all.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Thanks, everyone, for amazing comments! I'm sorry I have been so slow in continuing the conversation... a busy couple of days.

Frank and Ryan, I think you present such interesting and important points. I feel like in every choice we make about public housing, there are these strange unintended consequences, some negative, some positive. Always complicated.

What we need to make things work is more people like you all who are willing to have the conversation. All I wanted to do with my blog is encourage us to be able to use all the words, concepts and ideas available to us when we talk about stuff like this. Because when we start walling ourselves off from eachother, refusing to admit to the tension we exist in, I think we'll never get on the road to solving those things.

Anyway, thank you all for commenting!

Dee said:

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Megan. Thanks for attempting to open up dialogue. What really needs to happen is in the new mixed income areas, especially where public funds were used to build housing, is quarterly meetings need to be mandated for at least the first year. Ground rules that are agreed upon by all residents. By the way public housing residents do have a say in what goes on. They just have to know how to say what they mean and mean what they say.In case the owners did not know it but GOVERNMENT funds were used to put their new condo on the block. So they too have relied on the government as well to provide the housing they seek. And when the neighborhood goes up or down all residents go together. "It takes a Village" To have a great community!!!

Ian Swope said:

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I know this was written a year ago but this was just forwarded to me this week.

I'm the person who was quoted in the story. I find it interesting that the journalist took one sentence out of a two and a half hour conversation that included me, my wife, the president of our condo association and another owner.

Why can't we say it's about race? Because it's not. Why do we have to qualify that it's not about race all of the time? Because newspapers, radio stations and blogs like this keep trying to make it about race. To say all of the owners are white is complete bullshit. We have owners who are Indian, Hispanic, Asian and, yes, even Black so why does every story have to be slanted to fit the narrative of the "Rich evil white owners against the poor downtrodden blacks"? Isn't that just as racist?

Here's what the story left out: Our issue isn't with the tenants it's with the CHA who's sole purpose initially was to just drop them off here and wipe their hands of the situation. We have tried repeatedly to get the CHA involved in our building and, until quite recently, they have refused to do so. In the interim we have initiated two community gardens and are starting a Greens committee in which we are trying to involve CHA residents so that we can all benefit together.

If you'd like to contact me and ask me what I really think instead of taking a soundbite from a slanted story you are certainly more than free to do so.

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